Emerge smarter with Watson: How conversational AI keeps us connected in a post-COVID-19 world

By | 5 minute read | July 8, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, organizations are figuring out how to emerge smarter, looking at how to keep employees safe, but productive, and how to best support customers and citizens seeking accurate, up-to-date information in a mostly remote world — all while trying to keep their business operating, meeting their goals and boosting their bottom line. But despite the fact that everything has changed, the needs, questions and issues didn’t go away — if anything, there are more of them. This leaves organizations unable to cope with the volume of customers, citizens, patients and employees trying to get answers.

In March, IBM jumped in to address this challenge by training Watson Assistant, the IBM conversational AI platform, to respond to common questions around COVID-19, directly leveraging guidance from local authorities. Organizations and government entities in over a dozen countries are working with IBM to help their citizens and customers, with some getting their solution up and running in as little as 24 hours. Following the initial deployments in March, IBM created new pre-trained intent topics based on user interest, expanding to include voting, unemployment, government assistance and payer-provider specific intents.

We’ve watched organizations around the world deploy Watson to better support their citizens, with no two use cases looking exactly alike. Here are a few of the many ways we’ve seen Watson applied across urban hubs, rural regions, statewide healthcare systems or even entire nations:

In mid-March, COVID-19 had reached Colombia and began spreading, leading to a sudden need for information around the pandemic, local regulations, where to seek treatment and more. The Colombian Presidential Council for Digital Transformation knew there was a need for a central information hub for their citizens. The Council turned to IBM to help develop and launch a virtual agent designed to provide answers to Colombians around COVID-19. After two weeks, the Council launched “Cory,” which could initially answer 40 questions related to COVID-19. In the days following the launch, the phone hotline received more than 19,000 calls for information. Since the launch in April, the Council has trained Cory to answer 180 different questions on topics like prevention, latest government decrees, guidance around international travel and more. Overall, Cory has facilitated 30,000 interactions, connecting the people of Colombia to much needed information about COVID-19.

Hill Country Memorial, a not-for-profit healthcare system in rural Texas, felt it was their duty to make information about COVID-19 accessible to community members. The hospital group serves 14 counties in the Texas Hill Country. Despite their far reaching locations, the community has a common need: up-to-date, accurate and easily accessible information around COVID-19. Hill Country Memorial launched a virtual agent, powered by Watson Assistant, that acts as a single, reliable source of information for community members, helping connect people to answers around symptoms, testing sites, as well as the status of schools, businesses, transportation and other public services. IBM Watson is helping to connect community members to the information needed to stay healthy and safe.

Many organizations have their eyes on what’s next, and are improving upon their original Watson Assistant applications each day. In New York, Ulster County deployed a COVID-19 text-based chatbot for their 180,000 residents during the first wave of the pandemic. With the bot handling many citizen and business owner questions, Ulster County has seen a decrease in the number of calls to their COVID-19 hotline. The team paid close attention to how their citizens were using the bot, and were able to pivot quickly to modify the bot based on frequently asked questions. For example, they noticed a spike in citizens asking about the status of cases in the region, so their team added a web hook that enabled the bot to pull the latest information from the Ulster County COVID-19 Dashboard.

Now that frequently asked questions are handled by their text-based bot, Ulster County is moving on to support the citizens calling the call center, and the agents staffing it. Ulster County plans to launch a voice agent that can share information with callers and escalate more challenging issues to a live agent. Ulster’s voice agent will be able to follow up via text and share relevant links with residents, ensuring they have access to the information on the go. Not only will this facilitate a better experience for residents, but it will continue to take pressure off call center agents by allowing them to support more complex resident inquiries rather than answer the same set of repetitive questions.

Eventually, as the number of cases decreases and regions around the world slowly return to their “new normal,” citizens, customers and employees will still have questions: “When will schools reopen?” “What healthcare resources are available now?” “Is it safe to go shopping?” “How do I file for unemployment benefits?”

To simplify how organizations address these common questions, IBM is also offering the IBM Watson Discovery COVID-19 Kit, which streamlines the creation of a more hyperlocal virtual agent. The Watson Discovery Kit is pre-configured with information from trusted sources like the CDC, Harvard and the United States Department of Labor, allowing you to train your virtual agent on FAQs with data from these trusted sources. Using NLP capabilities, the Kit allows organizations to enrich their Watson Assistant use cases with the most up-to-date, hyperlocal details their citizens or customers are looking for. Guidance is changing on a daily basis, so Watson Discovery can automatically crawl sources to ensure your virtual assistant is equipped with the latest, most accurate information.

For example, a hospital group in a major city can use the Watson Discovery COVID-19 Kit to crawl sources specific to their city, such as updates from the local government, data specific to breakouts in their region and other hyperlocal information. Now their virtual assistant ensures citizens, clients and employees are receiving the specific information needed to address their COVID-19 related questions and concerns.

As businesses rethink how to move forward, IBM will be there to help organizations better communicate with customers and citizens, create new intelligent workflows and transform their day-to-day operations.

Ready to explore how Watson Assistant can help your customers, citizens and clients? Click to understand how IBM enables you to work safer and smarter.

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